The phone rang and I hit dismiss because I didn’t recognize the number. A few minutes later I listened to the message.
“Can you please meet me after school with your child,” said my seven-year-old’s teacher, “because he has been acting out today in ways that are just not like him. There were a few incidents in the classroom, and then he was calling kids names, including calling someone gay.”
Needle across the record: He WHAT?
We are a relatively progressive family. We talk openly about equality and tolerance and people being accepted for who they are. Heck, today, when I couldn’t find shoes to match my pants, he sighed and told me, in his most bored pre-pre-teen voice, “It doesn’t matter what you look like, Mom. It matters how you treat people.”
So when I heard that my son had teased other kids, including calling someone gay, I prepared to give an epic lecture.
As I thought about the impending conference, though, I wondered if my son even knew what the word gay meant. Both my boys know all kinds of families look different from ours: we know families that have one parent, others with two moms, some with two dads; we know families that include one child, three children, pets, no pets, humans with dark skin, light skin, everything in between, and some of all of the above. There are so many kinds of normal constituting our village that I don’t know if my son knows what to call any of them. We don’t label our friends, so maybe he was just repeating a word he heard at school. Maybe.
So I planned how I would approach The Talk.
First, obviously, I had to ask what happened and why?
Second, I had to ask what he thinks the word gay means.
And the rest would pivot from there.
Except that it shouldn’t, I railed inside my head. Even if my son didn’t know that “gay” has been cruelly hurled as an epithet to make people feel bad or not, he will learn today. I’m going to tell him that trying to make someone feel bad by criticizing who they are is mean, not just to the person called gay, but to all the people nearby who hear that word and infer from the context that gay must be bad. Because there is nothing bad about gay. This is indicative of a culture that demeans with words like “girly” and racial slurs precisely because words buttress power structures. When child calls someone gay, it begins a process where an entire peer group learn to categorize gay in the “thou shalt heed this word and feel shame or disdain when you hear it” category. And all I can say is, “no way.” Not after all the hard work the LGBT community has done to fight for civil rights. Oh, hail no.
All human beings deserve respect and fairness. So my family will not use words that make people feel less-than. A new mantra was brewing. “There are no greater-than or less-than symbols in human interactions, children. We will not even practice using wavy lines to hedge our bets a bit and suggest that some humans are ‘approximately equal to.’ No. We will only use straight equal signs in all our interactions, so help me Math!”
“WAIT! I didn’t mean straight!”
“Wait again! I didn’t mean that straight’s not okay. Everything is okay! Different is good! I’ll just wear these shoes because they’re closest to the door!”
Sigh. My mantras need work.
We will not try to gain power by making others feel bad about who they are.
And that is the righteous banner I held aloft as I marched to my child’s school. The doors swung open and I prepared for an epic lecture on historical repression with…my small, tired, slumping little guy with the too-big backpack and the bedraggled hair.
Oh, pumpkin. I think I’m doing this wrong. This isn’t a battle. This is a talk about kindness.
Reboot parent mode. I climbed off my high horse and sat in a tiny chair at a tiny desk so I could listen to my sweet, sensitive, wonderful little guy.
Teacher: I was at the sink when I heard voices saying, “Quinn is gay. Quinn is gay.” When I turned around, Peanut was one of the kids saying it.
Me: Why did you say that Quinn is gay?
P: What? He is gay.
M: What makes you say that?
P: Jason told me he’s gay.
M: I see. Um…what do you think gay means?
P: I don’t know.
M: Oh. Well, gay is when a grownup wants to start a family with someone of the same gender. So our friends M and K are gay, J and N are gay, and M and L are gay.
P: Oh. [beat] But G and K don’t have kids.
M: Family doesn’t mean kids. Family means who you love. But who we love is not all we are. When we go to M and K’s house for dinner, I don’t say “we’re going to our gay friends’ house,” right? I say, “we’re going to our friends’ house.” And when someone is meeting T, I don’t say, “This is my gay friend.” I say, “This is my friend.”
P: I know.
Teacher: If you are kind of teasing, saying “Quinn is gay, Quinn is gay,” he might think there’s something wrong with being gay, and there isn’t. We don’t tease. Just like you don’t say, “Quinn is blond, Quinn is blond.”
M: Right. If you did say that, Quinn would think there might be something wrong with being blond, but he can’t change that. And if you say that he’s gay, he might think there’s something wrong with being gay. And all the people around you in class start to wonder if blond or gay are bad things for them to be. So calling someone blond or gay might not hurt their feelings, but it might teach other people to feel bad about being blond or gay or tall or thin or whatever the tease is. Gay isn’t who someone is. It’s part of them. Like their hair. Brown or blond or gay doesn’t change, so teasing about those things is making someone feel bad. And it’s not okay to do something to make someone feel bad.
M: May I also point out, really, that the things Jason tells you usually aren’t true. He told you girls aren’t allowed to play soccer. He told you that boys should like dogs because girls like cats. He told you “every single person in Mexico, even the old people and babies have machine guns.” None of those things is true. In fact, they’re pretty ludicrous. So I’d do some serious fact checking before I believed anything Jason said.
We left the whole discussion at the door. I didn’t bring it up again, which took a lot of restraint. I still had many, many words I wanted to use. But I have to let the poor child breathe.
And I have to breathe, too. I don’t think he was trying to hurt Quinn or to cement hatred against the LGBT community. I think he was trying out a new word. And I think my son just learned that some words are simply unacceptable. I still remember my mom walking me through a whole list of racial slurs I may not ever use, including definitions and an explanation of how horribly each group had suffered under that epithet. Looking back as a parent, I wonder if she unleashed that lecture because I had used one of those names. Or someone said one to me.
So can I maybe relax and realize this is just a rite of passage, just the first step in a long series of conversations about how words have power, and how some people use powerful words to bully other people. A long, evolving conversation about finding your own power rather than taking it from others by devaluing them.
I take really seriously…perhaps too seriously…okay. definitely too seriously…my job of raising people who make the world a better place. I really hope my sons and their peers grow up knowing there’s more to people than their skin color or sexual orientation or gender. Allowing people to be more than the single words we use as labels builds the holy grail of attributes: kindness. Thankfully, that one comes from nurture.
Or lecture. I’m not sure which, nurture or lecture, but I’m going to try both.
Side note: heaven help me when I have to explain that sometimes, when people are old enough and their hormones tell them to, they change their hair color. Then all my metaphors are going to crumble and with them my authority over empathy and tolerance. Maybe.